Many cities on the east coast of North America are well known for their large Irish American communities; Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and the most well known of all, New York City, are just a few. By the late 19th century one quarter of the populations of these cities were Irish immigrants. New York still has the biggest Irish American population than any other city in the States. At one point in history, New York had more Irish residents than Ireland's capital city, Dublin!
Arriving in New York
From the early 19th century, New York established itself as the primary American colony. With improving infrastructure, the population boomed. A steady flow of immigrants from all over mainland Europe (and some from even further afield) began to arrive. The flow increased to a stream and then a rushing river as the century progressed. In 1855, the first immigration depot was established at Castle Garden. A fort that had stood at the tip of Manhattan since the war of 1812.
Today, it is called Battery Park. An astounding 3.5 million people entered the US through Castle Garden during the famine. By 1890, the federal government had assumed control and opened a new Bureau of Immigration. This was located on Ellis Island in the upper New York harbor. This became the entry depot for all immigrants to the city. In its 62 years of operation, it processed approximately 12 million people. That’s almost 200,000 a year or a rough average of around 500 people per day!
Meanwhile, in Ireland, the country and most of its citizens were poorly educated and heavily reliant on agriculture outside of the cities which were badly managed by the British government. Many rural residents lived in poverty due to exploitative landlords. At the time, almost all agricultural land was owned by a select few rich members of the upper classes, most of whom had no empathy or understanding of poorer classes. Midway through the 19th century, potato crops all across Europe failed because of a condition known as blight. For the poor Irish classes, potatoes were all they could afford to grow on the small patch of land that they rented. No potatoes meant starvation for many.
The Famine lasted several years before the British government and others finally intervened. It’s estimated that almost 1 million people died and another 1.5 million emigrated. Many traveled to the UK. However, the majority were forced to take the cheapest option available to them, to board the ‘coffin ships’ that crossed the Atlantic. These run-down wooden ships took several weeks to make the crossing. Hygiene standards were terrible. Diseases spread quickly.
There was nowhere near enough food to go around, and people inevitably died on the journey. Hence the name. When the ships finally arrived at Ellis Island, they were often quarantined before people were finally allowed to set foot on solid ground again. Most were malnourished, uneducated people arriving without a single penny in their pockets, having spent what little money they had on the passage over. They had no choice but to stay in whatever city they landed in and take whatever work they were offered.
The Irish immigrants of New York were alone in a place completely unlike anything they had known in their previous life. Many of them were illiterate and had no skills. The only thing they could do in order to make a life for themselves was to stick together. An Irish community developed in an area on the western edge of Midtown alongside the Hudson river. Once a rural area, as the city expanded it filled up with industrial buildings several storeys high.
When masses of Irish immigrants started flooding to the area, these buildings became tenements. Several families or even groups of people would live together in single rooms. Most worked on the docks, on the railroads, or in other manual labor jobs. They earned just enough to feed themselves, but little more.
This quickly resulted in the Irish gaining a negative reputation among the well-to-do New Yorkers. With little income and little education, it wasn’t long before some turned to petty crime. When combined with the deterioration of Hell’s Kitchen into derelict buildings, the area became known as ‘the most dangerous place on the whole American continent’. The fact that there were slaughterhouses in the area and underground breweries during the prohibition area didn’t help its reputation either.
Many parts of the Bronx and Queens, as well as the Inwood and Five Points areas of Manhattan, were also known for having large Irish communities. But Hell’s Kitchen was the largest and the one that still stands out for most. Street names included ‘Battle Row’ and ‘Poverty Lane’. Unsurprisingly, the area has been renamed and is now known as Clinton.
Gangs of New York
If you’ve seen the film of the same name, you’ll know that Hell’s Kitchen became notorious around this era for its fighting. It is believed that this area was where the stereotype of the ‘fighting Irish’ originated. The convergence of different cultures and social backgrounds, living in close quarters and in poverty was often a recipe for conflict at this time.
Irish protestants and Catholics fought amongst themselves. Other nationalities settling in the area added further complications. Violence became a way of life for the people of Hell’s Kitchen which ultimately led to organised crime and the formation of gangs.
The Forty Thieves were the first organised crime gang ever to hit New York’s streets. They were group of Irish immigrants in the 1820s. They were led by Edward Coleman who hailed from the Five Points area of the city but operated on the Lower East Side. They held meetings in a grocery store on Centre Street. It was there that they would be given assignments and issued quotas of illegal activities to meet. This resulted in competition between the younger and more experienced members of the group.
The Forty Thieves even established partnerships with corrupt city officials in exchange for their support and silence for community services. Around the same time, another gang formed who consisting predominantly of immigrants from county Kerry. They called themselves the Kerryonians. Their target, people of British descent. They were famous for disrupting well known British actor, William Charles Macready, during a performance in Astor Place in 1825.
The 1850s onwards was the prime gangland era of New York. One of the best known gangs during this time (and probably of all of them) was the Dead Rabbits. Martin Scorsese’s ‘Gangs of New York’ film was loosely based on this gang. They were the most efficient and most organised of them all. Up to the point that they even worn a uniform of a red stripe on their pantaloons. They had stark rivalries with many other gangs which regularly ended in riots and brawls on the streets. Over subsequent decades, various other gangs established and disappeared again. Absorbed by larger gangs or just dwindled away as they were thrown in jail or murdered. The most notorious and violent gang of all, however, didn’t come along until the 1960s. Yes, gang culture persisted for over 100 years in New York!
The Westies never had more than 20 members. Between them, they managed to commit somewhere between 60 and 100 murders from 1968 to 1986. This dynastic gang went through several leaders and plenty of bloody conflicts with other gangs. They were eventually stamped out when the NYPD began a crackdown on crime in the city in the 1980s, with many of them arrested. Some say The Westies still exists in a lesser form.
Hell’s Kitchen Today
While Hell’s Kitchen is a shadow of its former self, the name still persists in many New Yorker’s minds. Transport, maps, and other official sources refer to it as Clinton or West Midtown. Locals, particularly those of an older generation will still call it Hell’s Kitchen. From the 1970s onwards, the first hints of gentrification began to creep into the area.
The worst tenements were demolished and rebuilt. The streets were renamed and slowly but surely the area became more prosperous. More like New York we all know today.
Nowadays, the area has ethnic restaurants aplenty. With its proximity to Broadway, it is the home of many aspiring actors and creative talents. Just some of the big names who once called Hell’s Kitchen their home include Sylvester Stallone, Alicia Keys, Madonna, James Dean, Jerry Seinfeld and Bob Hope. The Actors Studio on 44th Street is also a big draw for those chasing dreams of fame and fortune.
During the attacks of September 11th 2001, the fire station of the Hell’s Kitchen area (Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 at 48th Street and 8th Avenue) suffered the greatest loss. 15 firefighters lost their lives during 9,685 runs. Today, memorials adorn the walls of the area now. If you’re visiting New York and have a particular interest in Irish American history, or ethnic food then it’s well worth a visit.
Irish Americans in Modern New York
Irish Americans are still a prominent ethnic community in New York. From the latter half of the 20th century right up until the present day, the Irish American community have made names for themselves in many areas but especially as proud members of the police force and fire departments of New York. Saint Patrick’s day in the city is an even bigger event than it is in Ireland with famous landmarks like the Empire State Building lighting up green for the day. A huge parade shuts down 5th Avenue to celebrate all things Irish each year.
The Irish in New York have managed to shed this reputation too. Today, Irish New Yorkers are fully respected as one of the many diverse cultures contributing to the unique history of the great city of New York. During the various ups and downs in the economic and political situations in Ireland over the last few decades, immigrants have continued to make their way across the Atlantic and have continued to be welcomed into the city.
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